Sunday, Jul 03, 2022

What Is Causing Unprecedented Floods In Assam? Climate Change Or Sloppy Management?

While news of Assam floods is common every year, the question must be asked, always, what is making the floods worse this year? Or what causes the devastating Assam floods? 

Villagers use a boat to move to a safer spot in Assam amid heavy floods.
Villagers use a boat to move to a safer spot in Assam amid heavy floods. PTI

The monsoon continues to weigh heavy on the Northeast while Assam struggles to save its livelihood amid devastating floods and perhaps the "worst" in several years. The flood situation remained grim on Thursday as officials reported 12 more people deaths. Till now, more than 54 lakh people have been affected across 32 districts with the rising Brahmaputra and Barak rivers inundating new areas. With these deaths, the toll in this year's flood and landslides rose to 101. Among the worst-affected districts is Barpeta where 11,29,390 people are suffering, Kamrup where 7,89,496 people are affected, and Dhubri where 5,97,153 people are hit by the devastation.

While news of Assam floods is common every year, the question must be asked, always, what is making the floods worse this year? Or what causes the devastating Assam floods? 

Why are Assam floods getting worse? 

It's given that Assam and entire Northeast India is a flood-prone zone due to their geographical and topographical region making it one of the highest rainfall zones in the world. Additionally, Assam, the Gateway of North East India, is crisscrossed by a number of major rivers originating from lower Himalayan ranges and debouching into the plains causing flash floods in the flood plains of Assam and neighbouring states.

In 2013, a committee was constituted by MoWR (Now Ministry of Jal Shakti)to address the issue of floods and suggest methods of arresting the same. In its report, the committee had stated that flood storage and integrated reservoir operation are required along with the construction of storage reservoirs on the tributaries and distributaries.

However, most of the embankments, constructed on the main stem of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, date back to the 1960s and 70s. In its 12th report on August 5, 2021, the Standing Committee on Water Resources (SCWR) stated, "These embankments need raising & strengthening as well as bank protection measures in form of revetment or Reinforced cement concrete (RCC) porcupines requiring huge capital investment."

A report by Down To Earth suggested that companies, who are awarded contracts to build embankments by the government, profit from the back-to-back destructions. The report added that an embankment that was reconstructed after getting damaged in the floods in May was breached again in these floods. 

According to the SCWR report, "Lack of cooperation among States in respect of inter-state projects, lack of budgetary support by State Governments for maintenance of flood management measures, difficulty in implementation of flood plain zoning and regulations are some of the problems faced in checking the recurring floods in Assam and North East(NE) region." Additionally, deforestation, erosion and destruction of wetlands have added to the persisting havoc. The report suggested that the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti should consider providing financial assistance to those states that were willing to implement floodplain zoning.

Allegations have also surfaced about the misappropriation of funds allotted from Member of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLAD) to combat natural disasters in the country and unfortunately, India has been witnessing a surge in extreme weather events associated with the lethal impact of climate change.

Desilting of natural drainage systems like Bharalu and Bahini rivers, wetlands like Silsako, Borsola, Sarusola, Deepor Beel, Khonajan which serve as reservoirs of rainwater run-off also remain limited to a pre-monsoon exercise. However, experts suggest the action must be carried out around the year to prevent the worsening of the flash flood situation in the city.

Climate change, another contributor 

Scientists believe that climate change is likely to have made the rains, that unleashed catastrophic flooding in South Asia, worse. 

This year’s torrential rainfall lashed the area as early as March. It may take much longer to determine the extent to which climate change played a role in the floods, but scientists say that it has made the monsoon — a seasonable change in weather usually associated with strong rains — more variable over the past decades. This means that much of the rain expected to fall in a year is arriving in a space of weeks.

According to a report by AP, the pattern of monsoons, vital for the agrarian economies of India, has been shifting since the 1950s, with longer dry spells interspersed with heavy rain, said Roxy Matthew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, adding that extreme rainfall events were also projected to increase.

Assam, famed for its tea cultivation, usually coped with floods later in the year during the usual monsoon season. However, the sheer volume of early rain this year that lashed the region in just a few weeks makes the current floods an “unprecedented” situation.

According to media reports, the South Asia monsoon season, from June to September, is governed by several, overlapping patterns in the ocean and atmosphere, including the El Niño-La Niña weather cycle and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Given the current situation and recent heatwaves, those systems are driving strong, southwesterly winds over the Bay of Bengal.

Climate change experts at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have said that catastrophic floods like the one this year could have wide-ranging impacts, from farmers losing their crops and being trapped in a cycle of debt to children not being able to go to school and at increased risk to disease.

(with agency inputs)